By BRUCE FEILER LOS ANGELES, January 21, 2011
IN his 1964 book “Understanding Media,” Marshall McLuhan helped define the modern age with his phrase, “The medium is the message.” Were he here nearly 50 years later, the critic would hardly be surprised to discover that in the most talked-about sitcom of the moment, the medium has become the punch line.
Deep in the canyons of Studio 5 several weeks ago, the cast of ABC’s hit series “Modern Family” was busy filming an episode. As crew members huddled around the monitors, Cam, the portly, gay Mr. Dad portrayed by Eric Stonestreet, learned some bad news. His partner, Mitchell, had failed to mail out invitations to a fund-raiser in their home that night. Cam had ordered the crab cakes and rented the harps, but he had no guests.
“Get me Mitchell!” Cam shouted to his nephew, Luke.
What followed was a high-tech version of “Who’s on First?” Luke doesn’t know Mitchell’s number. Cam grabs the phone and presses speed dial. Mitchell lets the call go to voice mail. Luke doesn’t know how to press redial. Cam snatches the receiver and gets twisted in his headset. We’ve had five back-and-forths in 10 seconds and still nobody has managed to communicate.
Shakespeare used mistaken identities to flummox his lovers. “Modern Family” uses dropped Skype connections.
In the last two years, “Modern Family” has ridden timely premises like this to surging viewership and six Emmys, including outstanding comedy series. In a rare concurrence, the darling of the critics is one of the highest rated comedies on television, and is the 20th rated show over all this season. This unusual success for a family comedy raises questions: What aspects of contemporary life has it tapped into? What does “Modern Family” say about modern families?
From the beginning, the creators Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (“Cheers,” “Wings”) conceived their show around a newfangled family tree: Jay Pritchett, the patriarch; his Colombian trophy wife, Gloria; and her son, Manny; Jay’s grown son, Mitchell; his partner, Cam; and their adopted Vietnamese daughter; Jay’s high-strung daughter, Claire; her goofball husband, Phil; and their three suburban children.
When the series went on the air in 2009, most of the buzz centered on Mitchell and Cam, who were occasionally shown together in bed, cracked jokes at their own expense, and flaunted every stereotype. But they never kissed, and a fan-generated backlash erupted, then died down last fall after an innocuous smooch.
“While I appreciated that fans care about our characters,” Mr. Stonestreet said, “I never understood why people put their focus on ‘Modern Family,’ a show that introduced a loving, grounded gay couple on television who adopted a baby, and accused it of being homophobic.”
But all the attention on Mitch and Cam’s lip life overshadowed deeper strands that make the show even more probative of contemporary culture. For starters, the characters in “Modern Family” are so immersed in technology that nearly every scene is refracted through a digital funhouse: an iPad screen, a cellphone camera, a baby monitor, a YouTube video. Characters spend half their time glancing past one another rather than communicating directly.
“We used to talk about how cellphones killed the sitcom because no one ever goes to anyone’s house anymore,” said Abraham Higginbotham, a writer on the show. “You don’t have to walk into Rachel and Ross’s house, because you can call and say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ We embrace technology so it’s part of the story.”
As Ty Burrell, who plays the gadget-obsessed Phil, said: “I was just watching the Fran Lebowitz documentary ‘Public Speaking,’ and she had this basic idea that there is no institution other than media. And I had this little flash of Phil — and me — that we are parsing our personality together externally from how people perceive us.”
The refraction of technology is part of a larger element: the bifurcation of how people act. “Modern Family” is the first family show to be filmed as a “mockumentary,” an approach its creators trace to Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run,” but which is better known from “The Office.”
Originally “Modern Family” centered on a Dutch filmmaker who had been an exchange student with the Pritchetts in high school. The writers dropped the character because he was cumbersome, and, as Mr. Levitan said, “because I don’t like the people who allow cameramen to sit around their house all day while they raise their kids.”
But two crucial elements remain. First, characters in the middle of a scene will often glance at the camera, a disconcerting aside that has the effect of making the viewer feel both like a part of the family and an observer. A result is a feeling of “Who’s laughing at whom here?” that echoes the larger reality-show surrealism that surrounds the Kardashians, “The Housewives” and Sarah Palin.
Second, the characters in “Modern Family” all offer confessional interviews directly to an unidentified cameraperson. Jay may say he pretends to love his daughter’s blueberry pie, but he really hates it. Or Mitchell may say, as he does in this episode, “Cameron has it in his head that I don’t listen to him, but I do.”
The idea of internal monologue is hardly new — think of any ballad in a Broadway musical. What’s new is that we all engage in this sort of running narrative of our lives, rushing off after dinner (or coitus) to share our confessions on Twitter or Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg may be a greater influence on “Modern Family” than Norman Lear is.
As Mr. Lloyd said: “The interviews are a chance to have characters more honestly express things than they might openly do in a scene with someone. So we get a laugh from the contrast between what they’re really feeling and what they were willing to admit they were feeling in the scene.”
“Modern Family” is surely the first family comedy that incorporates its own hashtag of simultaneous self-analysis directly into the storyline.
But for all these technological hoo-has, the feature of the show that seems most strikingly contemporary is that it goes for the heart instead of the jugular. In nearly every 22-minute episode, the music swells in the 19th minute, any conflict gets resolved, and a tidy embrace ensues. While Jerry Seinfeld famously insisted on “No hugs and no learning,” “Modern Family” is built around the opposite idea: No problem is too big it can’t be swept under a hug. As Mr. Levitan summarized his show’s philosophy, “Don’t be afraid of a hug, but make sure you earn it.”
Is there something in the culture today that craves this direct emotion? “A natural tendency of situation comedies is to shy away from emotion,” said Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who plays Mitchell. “There’s been an absence of well-grounded, family comedy on television. Instead we’ve had fantastic snarky comedies, like ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Arrested Development.’ I think people miss shows like ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘Family Ties’ that showed true family values.”
But not all earlier shows insisted on sweetness and light. The defining shows of the 1970s — Norman Lear’s “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “The Jeffersons” — tackled grittier fare, from infidelity to racism. “Modern Family” is a smart show — Phil quotes evolutionary psychology, Cam and Mitchell have primitive art on the walls. One episode mined the notion that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers.”
But it’s also timid. In today’s global village, a gay kiss is considered controversial and breaking up with your boyfriend by texting is cutting edge. Edith Bunker, on a show that drew twice as many viewers, was the victim of an attempted rape. Maude had an abortion. Archie Bunker kissed a transvestite.
“I don’t want this in any way to detract what they’re doing on ‘Modern Family,’ ” Mr. Lear told me, “which I think is terrific, but it goes along with the choice of subject. We were going as deep as we could into feelings. Everybody had to read The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Somebody would see a story that the incidence of high blood pressure was higher in black males than white, so that was something we could do a story about.”
The creators of “Modern Family” are tapping into a different, more self-regarding anxiety: less focused on how families interact with the outside world; more centered on how they function internally.
“I don’t think we shy away from those issues because we want to keep it saccharin and sweet,” Mr. Lloyd said. “There are different ways of being challenging. To find real, raw emotional moments about the difficulties of growing up, the challenges of dealing with children, or unresolved stuff with your parents is as real as dealing with a big crazy event like a rape or a crisis of faith. Politics or talking about God can rile people.”
In that way, “Modern Family” may be most akin to modern life. The roiling topics of politics and religion are kept off the Thanksgiving table. The simmering topics of sexuality, technology and dysfunction are kept on. The goal is not to heal the world; it’s to heal thyself. That is, to preserve the ideal of the family — conflicted, but functioning. As Mr. Lloyd put it, “Viewers wish their family communicated a lot more directly the way our guys do.”
Therein lies the crux of the show. The particulars of the Pritchett-Tucker family may be different from those of the Huxtables, Bunkers or Cleavers. There are second marriages to immigrants, adolescent husbands who never grew up, gay dads. But the core values are the same. Perhaps that’s why a study last year listed “Modern Family” as the third-most popular show among Republicans. In its fundamentally conservative vision, “Modern Family” turns out to be not so modern after all.
Which is why in this episode, as Cam rises before his smattering of guests to introduce “Harp Attack,” Mitchell bursts through the door. Not only has he summoned his family to the rescue, he has also recruited a small band of music students.
“You did it,” Cam says.
Mitchell demurs. “I need to listen better.”
And as the harpists play, Claire and Phil sit arm in arm, Gloria rests her head on Jay’s shoulder, and Mitchell and Cam embrace.
“You can’t have a successful marriage without being a good listener,” Jay says in a confessional. “Sometimes it takes a little work.” We see Mitchell peeking at his computer, then slamming it shut. “Sometimes it takes a lot of work.” We see Phil fall asleep to the music, then Claire elbowing him awake. “Sometimes it’s freaking excruciating.”